Photo courtesy of CBS Television Studios / IMDb

‘Unbelievable’ Explores the Cascading Effects of Doubting Sexual Assault Survivors

Earlier this month, Netflix released an eight-episode series titled Unbelievable. Based on the true story first told in the Pulitzer prize-winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, the show is centered around survivors of sexual assault and the detectives racing to solve the series of crimes.

The series opens with Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenager living in an apartment of a housing community for at-risk youth, in shock about her sexual assault the night before. She is subjected to telling the story of her assault numerous times, which visibly pains her. Even the audience can feel the discomfort and confusion of having to recount her experience so many times.

Marie hasn’t had control for most of her life. She has been subjected to abuse and chaos as a result of being in the foster care system and has been manipulated and lied to by adults for years. The repetition of her experience and the trauma of the event leads to inconsistencies in her story. The detectives on her case pressure a vulnerable girl into doubting the reality of her assault and ultimately lying about being raped, leading to a false reporting charge.

In another timeline set three years in the future, female detectives Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Rasmussen (Toni Collette) discover that the rape cases they are investigating in separate districts are similar and could be the work of a single rapist. They join forces and work tirelessly to uncover as much information as they can about the seemingly expert criminal while following up with all the victims who successfully reported their assault. The victims, connected solely by the fact that they live alone, give the viewer an idea of how permanent the effects of sexual assault are, permeating every aspect of the survivor’s life. Eventually, the rapist is caught and the detectives discover his first victim, Marie. 

The dedication and rage of Detectives Duvall and Rasmussen are unparalleled by their male counterparts, highlighting the importance of inclusion and representation of females in law enforcement. Their frustration at being one step behind the criminal they are hunting also raises an important question: How many of these violent assaults could have been prevented if no one had doubted Marie Adler three years earlier?

Contrary to Dever’s more lighthearted performance in comedy Booksmart earlier this year, she expertly portrays the overwhelming pain and confusion Marie feels in the wake of her assault. She is let down by a culture that questions survivors rather than believing them right off the bat.

“You know, no one ever accuses a robbery victim of lying or someone who says he was carjacked. Doesn’t happen,” points out Marie’s lawyer. “But when it comes to sexual assault…” 

Although the “#MeToo” movement and other brave survivors have worked to reframe the way we think about sexual assault, society still questions the validity and conditions of rape claims. Victims like Marie are badgered into questioning their own stories, and instead of searching for the perpetrators of these crimes, we interrogate the victims. The way we put survivors’ experiences on trial discourages women from reporting their own assaults and perpetuates rape culture.

Referring to a male FBI agent who is part of their investigation, Detective Rasmussen asks in exasperation, “But where is his outrage?” Perhaps with the emergence of more shows and films that portray the cascading repercussions of sexual assault and our inattention to it, we will be forced to examine why we don’t initially believe survivors, and why we should.

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